For all the poor Jews who never got a Santa, this is my Grandma Annie's gift to you.
By Mary Beth Crain
As the last candle of Chanukah flickers out, it's a good time to reflect upon that holiday and how it ever came to be associated in any way, shape or form with Christmas.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Chanukah celebrates the liberation of the Jewish temple from the Greeks during the Ptolemaic Empire. The two events are entirely separate in time, place and meaning. The only thing they have in common is the month in which they happen to fall—December. The dates of Chanukah vary from year to year. The holiday is usually celebrated in early to mid-December, and this year it was simply purest coincidence that the first day of Chanukah also happened to be Christmas day.
From what my mother tells me, it really wasn't until the 1940s or 1950s that Christmas commercialism caught up with Chanukah, and turned it into what most people mistake as the "Jewish Christmas." My mom remembers that when she was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, you got only one Chanukah present—in her case, sadly and invariably, a "useful" item such as underwear. Gifts were not a big part of the holiday, which remained a true "holy day" of rejoicing and remembering how brave Judah Macabee and his band of insurgents known as the Macabees revolted against harsh Greek rule, which forbade Jews to practice their religion, and took back the small mountain of the Holy Temple, which had been defiled by the Greeks. The Macabees rebuilt the Holy Altar and, in accordance with the commands of the Torah, rededicated it in an eight-day Rededication Ceremony. The Hebrew word for "re-dedication" is Chanukah.
No, the main purpose of Chanukah, in the old days, was to remember this eight-day ceremony and the miracle associated with it. The Macabees could not find enough oil to properly fulfill the Torah's commandment of lighting the Temple Menorah. But amazingly—in the manner of Jesus creating enough food out of a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands—the little bit of oil they came across lasted for eight days straight. So, each night of Chanukah, a candle is lit, prayers are said, happy holiday food is eaten, and games are played to celebrate our hard-won freedom to worship God as Jews.
By the time I was growing up, however, the Chanukah vs. Christmas Wars were in full swing. Although we came from an observant family that tried as hard as it could to emphasize the traditions and meanings behind Chanukah, the world at large seemed to be hell-bent on making the holiday a gift-giving frenzy that would rival Christmas. The Chanukahs I remember involved getting a gift every night for eight nights, something that made our Christian friends just a tad envious. But we, on the other hand, were probably even more envious of them. Not only were we not part of the dominant culture, but we had to watch longingly as they got tall, fragrant pine trees festooned in lights and tinsel and wondrous baubles that stood guard over endless piles of brightly wrapped presents hand delivered by Santa Claus himself. It wasn't fair!
So, when at the age of around six, I wailed about this injustice to my grandma Annie, she replied,
"Listen. The goys might have Santa Claus. But we have Santa Cohen!"
Santa Cohen? I stopped sniveling to stare hard at her. I had never heard of Santa Cohen. Was this another one of her big, fat bubbe meises, like the one about how gefilte fish were a unique species of Jewish-bred fish that could swim without eyes or mouths or gills or anything? Or about how the cough medicine I was afraid to take was a special remedy that tasted like candy?
"You lied!" I gagged, as she shoved the most vile concoction I'd ever tasted into my wide-open mouth.
"'Oh, it wasn't so bad, was it?" she laughed.
So naturally I was suspicious about Santa Cohen. But my grandmother was, in addition to being a very good liar, a very good storyteller, and her description of Santa Cohen was terribly convincing.
"He's fat and jolly, just like Santa Claus, with a great big belly just like Mr. Berman."
Mr. Berman was the owner, along with Mrs. Berman, of the corner grocery store. Together they weighed about 700 pounds. They were rosy-cheeked and cheerful and when they laughed, their huge bellies would shake like vats of jell-o.
"What does Santa Cohen wear?" I wanted to know.
"Well," said Grandma Annie, "he wears a red suit like Santa Claus, with a red hat. Only instead of a snowball at the top, it has a matzo ball."
I imagined Mr. Berman in a Santa Suit, the matzo ball on his hat jiggling merrily along with his belly as he roared out "Ho, ho, ho! Happ-py Chanukah to all, and to all a Guten Nacht!" It was definitely a plausible image.
"Does he drive a sleigh with reindeer?" I asked.
"What do you think?" replied Annie. "Of course! And his reindeer are good Jewish reindeer. Eight of them, just like the eight days of Chanukah."
"What are their names?" I pressed her. She rose to the occasion.
"Oh, let me see, Chayim and Hyman, and Izzie and Itzhak, and Dreidl and Maidl, and Pinchas and...Ruben. The red-nosed reindeer."
"Does Santa Cohen come down the chimney?" I continued to grill her. After all, it was pretty hard to imagine Mr. Berman squeezing himself down a chimney and living to tell about it.
"On Erev Chanukah," Annie nodded. "When you're fast asleep. He delivers all your gifts to your mommy and daddy and Papa and me, and he stays for a little schnapps and kichel."
I was sold. We had a Santa too! The next day, in school, I couldn't wait to tell the whole class the news. I squirmed in my seat, waving my hand wildly until my teacher, Miss McGrath, a grey-haired spinsterish nightmare known for her terrifying temper, fixed her ugly wire-rimmed glasses on me.
"Mary Beth, do you have something to say?" she inquired sternly, in a voice that sounded like somebody stepping on ground glass.
I stood up proudly. "We have Santa Cohen!" I, the self-appointed representative of the entire Jewish religion (no, we are not a race) announced.
All my little classmates turned to stare at me.
"What?" barked Miss McGrath.
"The Christians have Santa Claus. But we have Santa Cohen! He wears a Santa suit and a red hat with a matzo ball on the top and he has a big fat belly just like Mr. Berman. He rides in a sleigh led by Ruben the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and he comes down the chimney with all our Chanukah presents when we're asleep, and has schnapps and kichel with the grownups."
I sat down triumphantly. The entire class was still gaping at me, open-mouthed. In the Christmas vs. Chanukah Wars, I had just scored a victory worthy of Judah Macabee. Until Miss McGrath thundered,
"Young lady, you have just wasted our time with the most ridiculous story I have ever heard! Go and stand in the cloakroom!"
The cloakroom! This was a horrible sentence. Only really bad kids and the ones who wet their pants were relegated to the cloakroom. It was the Gulag of Number 8 School. Number 8, by the way, was so old my mother had gone there when she was my age. It dated from 1907, when Theodore Roosevelt was President and people wore cloaks, not coats.
Sobbing, I crept into the cloakroom, accompanied by the raucous giggles of my now unimpressed peers. Standing among the many-colored little woolen coats, mittens and hats, I wondered where the hell Santa Cohen was when I needed him. Oh, if only he could swoop down the chimney of Number 8 School right now and burst into the first-grade classroom, wagging his finger and jiggling his stomach at the unbelievers. I got some small satisfaction out of imagining him sending Miss McGrath to the cloakroom.
I still believed in him, though, because my grandmother told me he was real and I wanted him to be, with all my heart. And ever after that, every time I saw Mr. Berman, I gave him a special smile.
There's a rather sad, strange postscript to this story. Many years later, when I was in my 30s, I ran into Mr. and Mrs. Berman in the Miami Airport. She was still fat as ever, but he was old and shrunken and she was pushing him in a wheelchair.
"Mr. and Mrs. Berman?" I said. Since they hadn't seen me since I was probably ten, they looked at me blankly.
"I'm Annie and Louie Bretstein's granddaughter."
"Oh, my God, Morris!" Mrs. Berman exclaimed. "Annie and Louie Bretstein's granddaughter! How long has it been?"
Mr. Berman looked at me sadly.
"Remember when I was big and fat?" he said wistfully. "And look at me now. Skin and bones. And I can't walk." He shook his head. "It's no good, to have a stroke."
I nodded and patted his shoulder. Oy. Even Santa Cohen couldn't stay young forever.
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